For those readers who aren’t already familiar with the concept of newsgroups, you’re missing out on a huge part of the internet experience. Those who have experienced the message boards of sites like Okayplayer might glean an understanding though – newsgroups are part informational posts, part heated debates, and part spam. What makes newsgroups really wild though is that 99% of them are COMPLETELY unmoderated – no oversight on what is discussed, by who, or for how long. Out of this chaos is sculpted formless clay into specific discussion groups of music, culture, politics and more. Though many groups have specific topics, they can over time evolve into new interpretations of it’s meaning as old users leave and new users join in.
Such is the case with the Alt.Rap newsgroup; the actual touchstone by which I first got involved in an online community almost a decade ago. In the wildly unmoderated newsgroup world, even “alt” groups are outlaws by comparison – their creation is unlimited and as such many internet service providers will either not carry them or only include the most popular. I enjoyed Alt.Rap greatly but was frustrated by the lack of wider coverage; and a group of us on Alt.Rap collaborated to formRec.Music.Hip-Hop. As the discussions about hip-hop music and culture drifted to the larger and more visible newsgroup, Alt.Rap did not die – rather it evolved into a “Battle Mode” where MC’s old and new alike could sharpen their rhymes by posting pre-written or freestyled rhymes online.
Under the direction of well known newsgroup member Pizon, these MC’s decided to come together and collaborate on an audio version of their internet keystyles. “Alt.Rap Presents Battle Mode” was the result – an eighteen track CD of raw uncut raps delivered in an intimidating package of marine helicopters swooping in for the attack. The diversity of rappers and groups is certainly impressive; including British rhymer A to the L, the group Phantom Syndicate, and New York emcee Pizon himself.
For those who aren’t familiar with these rappers from their keystyles, some of the tracks will be a pleasant surprise. The Phantom Syndicate in particular shines brightly – starting with their Wu-Tang-esque “Alt.Rap (Intro)” and followed up by the techno-industrial “Final Magnus” and the humerously bizarre “Swamp Meet” – a song undoubtedly inspired by movies from Troma Entertainment. The solo track “Heavy Barrel” by Kay Da Don works a simple piano loop that needs no dressing other than Kay’s gruff voiced flow. “Family Affair” by Universon is a challenging listen due to his hyperactive El-Producto on crack flow, but with a dark beat and witty rhymes like “you couldn’t come off the top if you were a jewish baby’s foreskin” it’s not hard to catch yourself rewinding again to figure out what the eff he said. The contributions by A to the L are definitely worthwhile; including his amusing “4321 Freestyle” which ends “Fuck LL; A to the L is the Greatest Of All Times.”
Unfortunately, some of the rappers and/or their tracks sound like they spent all of their time rhyming online and never with a real mic. Let’s not pull punches here – Ocho’s “Critical Mass 2001” is by any standard an embarassment. His voice isn’t that good, his breath control is terrible, the vocals are poorly recorded and the mix of beats to rhymes is so bad you’d rather just hear the instrumental. “Unsung Heroes” by Timid and Sacrifice isn’t nearly as bad, but comes across as a less interesting version of Chicago’s techno futuristic rap group Rubberroom. I’m sure DOKool thinks he’s a great writer when he reads them on the screen; but someone should tell him the tepid concepts like “uncrushable like twice compacted cars/I spit jail cells when I rhyme with mental bars” won’t work when combined with an Andy Dick voice and flow on “Untouchable.” If you get drunk first though, the song has great comedic value.
What’s amazing is that this album even has an “Alt.Wack” interlude dissing newsgroup participants who didn’t contribute to the compilation. One would think that the album would be a chance to show off the unity of diverse rappers coming together on the internet; instead this track takes the embarassing internet practice of “flames” into verbal audio artillery. Instead of bitching about the “bullshit ass excuses” of people who for their own good reasons didn’t want to be involved, they ought to be building up those who did and leaving the pettyness online where it belongs.
“The Finale” is a great example of how this CD works right. It has the kind of all-star lineup of excellent flowing, tight writing newsgroup members that epitomizes how this album could inject adrenaline into their rap careers. In the end though this album accurately portrays Alt.Rap to the non-newsgroup reading world quite well – a few great MC’s, some mediocre ones with potential they haven’t tapped, and a few who sound great online but have no business in a recording booth.